1-4 Behind the main wing of the house was a group of buildings called the “cold room.” Facing the kitchen was a well and a washing basin. And then the root cellar and granary. Extending ridgepole to ridgepole, the buildings enclosed the vegetable gardens, stock pen, and a fish pond, along with a mill and abattoir to process the harvest.
Thickly clad in a padded satin kimono, Shushou ventured out to the cold room about the time morning chores were done.
“Good morning!” an old man named Bashi called out to her.
“I heard that the academy got closed or something.”
“Whatever my father’s been going on about, I don’t want to know. Mind if I feed Hakuto?
“Go right ahead,” Bashi said with a big smile.
Bashi was one of the live-in servants. In the chaos following the death of the empress, he’d lost all his worldly goods, and with only the clothes on his back and his children under his arms, had sought employment here. His three children had been split up among other estates and retail establishments. But all were live-in servants.
“So the headmaster died, eh?” Bashi mused as he led Shushou to the stables. He’d been the stable master as far back a Shushou could remember. “It’s really too bad. Nothing but tales of such savagery abound in Renshou these days.”
“But thanks to your father, I can rest at ease.”
“I have to wonder how much longer that is going to last.”
“Perish the thought,” Bashi said sadly as they entered the stables.
Shushou liked the smell of the barn. Especially in the winter, the straw bedding, the warmth from the horses and donkeys, created a warm and comfy atmosphere. Her mother complained of the smell when Shushou came back into the house covered in straw dust, but she was sure that was because her mother didn’t like horses to start with.
“Is everybody in a good mood this morning?” she said to each animal in turn as she made her way to the back of the stables. Past the hay bin was her favorite, Hakuto.
The white beast slumbering on the other side of the fence raised his head. Hakuto was a moukyoku, a species of kijuu that resembled a white leopard. Intelligent, highly capable at reading human intentions, and yet gentle and attuned to its master, whom it already understood Shushou to be. It stretched out its neck and purred like a cat.
As Shushou softly called out to the beast, Bashi narrowed his eyes. He invested all his pride and joy in these stables, lived to care for the animals it housed, and treated them no worse than his own children. Watching Shushou exhibit a similar affection couldn’t help but arouse a tang of possessiveness.
Shushou had her hand on the fence and was opening the gate as she glanced over her shoulder at Bashi. “Okay if I play with him for a while?”
The moukyoku had agreeable temperament. Shushou and the kijuu were well accustomed to each other. She often came to the stables and wasn’t above pitching in with the chores. So Bashi refrained from listing the do’s and don’ts, nodded, and noted that he had things to tend to outside the stables.
Shushou watched Bashi leave, unlatched the gate—as high as her chest—and entered the stall. She sat down and cuddled up to Hakuto, sprawled out on the fluffy dry straw. She hugged its big head, burying her face in his neck, and stroked the soft fur behind his ears. Thanks to Bashi’s fastidiousness, Hakuto’s fur was as fresh as the straw and bore none of the stink of the wild.
For a few minutes more, Shushou listened to Bashi greeting the other horses. His voice soon died away as he exited the stables. Pricking up her ears, his footsteps grew distant as well.
“All right,” said Shushou.
She grinned at Hakuto, stood and left the stall. Making sure no one was looking, she went to the hay bin. She pushed her way through the loose hay, climbed up the stacked bales, and pulled a package from between the bin and the wall. Her travel bags, that she’d secreted there the night before.
Grasping them triumphantly, she waded back through the hay and hurried to the stall. Answering Hakuto’s puzzled look with a smile, she got the saddle off the hook on the wall. She’d saddled Hakuto many times before. Realizing they were going out, Hakuto got to his feet.
“Hold on there a minute,” Shushou said to him. She took a sheet of paper from her breast pocket. Wrapping her arm around his neck, she explained, “It says not to take Bashi to task over this.” Shushou placed the note in the feed box. “And if anybody does, I’ll never come back again.”
Hakuto gave Shushou a quizzical look.
“Yes, we are going a long ways away, but we’ll keep each other company. With your strong legs, we should make good time.”
Hakuto, of course, had nothing to say in return, and only curiously blinked his golden brown eyes. Shushou patted his head. “Twenty-seven years. The empress died a whole twenty-seven years ago! Now youma are even appearing in Renshou. More and more people are dying—”
She looked up through the barred skylight of the stables. When a kingdom lost its emperor, the kingdom descended into chaos and youma roamed at will.
“And yet well-meaning adults bar the windows and the doors and say they sleep soundly at night. What foolishness. As long as we have no emperor, the world will deteriorate around us. What must they be thinking?”
Hakuto looked at her like a child not quite getting the gist. Shushou smiled and took up the reins.
Where the sunlight slanted beneath the eaves, Bashi and his workers sat together and finished up various handiwork and chores. They were amazed at the sight of a moukyoku galloping across the grounds of the “cold room.”
They jumped to their feet and ran out, waving their arms to stop the bolting pair. With an almost lazy leap, the moukyoku soared over them, as if dancing right into the sun.
“Miss!” Bashi called out. “Shushou-sama!”
The moukyoku vaulted over the eaves and bounded across the bright green roof. All Bashi could do was watch as Shushou’s bright voice rained down from the sky.
“I’m just off for a little jaunt!”
“What in the world—! Miss!”
“Don’t worry! I’ll be fine!”
Leaving the confounded Bashi and the other behind in the dust, the moukyoku sprinted up the roof of the main wing. Shushou turned in the saddle and waved goodbye.
The white tail of the moukyoku flashed against the gleaming enamel. The guards posted at the four corners of the estate looked up and pointed at the fleeting kijuu. Shushou laughed and waved and urged the moukyoku on. As they cleared the great roof of the main wing, the endless spring sky reached out before her.
White clouds trailed silky threads across a light blue tableau tinged with pale violet. The tile roofs of Renshou spilled down the slopes beneath her, cresting and falling like ocean waves. As if corralling the city against Ryou’un Mountain behind it, the twisting, entwining barrier walls were bathed in white, tinged by the golden rays of the sun.
Beyond the walls was black earth and green valleys and hills. Everywhere lingered the early signs of spring, suffused with the soft light.
The white kijuu kicked off the waves of tile, landed on the nearby wall, and with a sidelong look at the startled sentinels ran along the top of the battlements. The galloping moukyoku glanced back at Shushou with a look that said, You sure this is okay?
“It’s fine. It’s fine. The only moukyoku in Renshou is you, Hakuto. Nobody’s going to take a shot at Banko’s kijuu.”
Shushou smiled at Hakuto as she took in the sun-drenched countryside. “I simply couldn’t abide sitting around twiddling my thumbs. If no adults are going to step up, then I will!”
Where to? Hakuto seemed to ask with a second glance back.
Shushou said, urging the kijuu towards the outskirts of Renshou, “To Mt. Hou! We’re going on the Shouzan!”